You can’t blame Tom Petty for being a rock star; he met Elvis when he was ten. The King was shooting one of his trash movies in Florida, and Tom’s aunt was working on the production. She brought him along, and Elvis was as polite and charming as the legends make him out to be.
“WHASS YER NAME? TOMMY? THASS A GOOD NAME. MINE’S ELVIS.”
Remember that picture of Bill Clinton shaking hands with John Kennedy? It was like that for Tom, but with better hair. I bet he was wearing his best shirt, his church shirt. A movie set, wow; Elvis, holy shit. That calls for your church shirt. This was 1961. He would have had a crewcut. Ten-year-old boys had crewcuts in 1961.
The panhandle is the Deep South. South Florida is the North, most of it, blacks and Jews and Cubans and homosexual retirees, but North Florida is the South and the panhandle is the Deep South. On the Southern Accents tour, a giant Confederate flag backed up the band. Later, Tom would sneer at himself for hanging the damn thing back there. Tom Petty sneered real good.
Tom Petty was the wallpaper. The light fixtures, or the stop signs. So omnipresent as to become invisible.
All the eulogies, all the remembrances, all the articles, they all mention his father, There are euphemisms. They had a contentious relationship. Tom’s father did not understand his son. Tom was a sensitive boy, shy and bookish. These are euphemisms.
His father beat him, and called him a faggot.
Some fathers do such things.
The best line in American Girl isn’t the opening line. Not words at all, really. At the end, when the drums start thwacking and the backup vocals come in high and clear, Tom goes “Uh-HUH-hah,” and that’s the best line in the song.
The comparison was often made to Springsteen, but the similarities are only superficial. Both came from often-mocked states, played telecasters, had unsightly backing bands. But Bruce wanted to be Dylan, and Tom wanted to be in The Byrds.
Younger Enthusiasts probably know his songs, but not his videos; MTV played them constantly back when MTV played videos. My favorite was You Got Lucky. Tom and the Heartbreakers are all Mad Maxes, and they come upon a tent full of rock and roll. Around half of all concept videos and albums in the 80’s were about redeeming a dystopian future via the power of rock and roll. Which is, in hindsight, optimistic. Nowadays, dystopias get worse.
He was from LA. He was born in Florida, but he was from LA. Moved out with his first band, Mudcrutch, in the early 70’s and never left.
Americans can be from wherever they want to be.
The buildup song is tough to pull off. Gotta keep it moving, but it’s gotta stay restrained until that moment–around three minutes in–it ERUPTS in goofy glory and enraptures all within listening distance to sing, dance, air drum. In The Air Tonight might be the most famous, but Don’t Come Around Here No More may top it. In The Air Tonight is all studio bullshit, but Don’t Come Around here is just a chick belting her lungs out while Tom and the boys shift into a major key. It’s more honest.
Complicated is easier than simple. Places to hide in complicated.
Well it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof
Yeah we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon
And I showed you stars you never could see
Babe, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me
Where do you hide in there? Free Fallin’ has three chords. Simplicity reveals inherence.
I remember crying the first time I heard You Don’t Know How It Feels. I was sitting in my dorm room on Beacon Street in a butterfly chair. Everyone had them. Metal frames that blossomed like an uncomfortable flower covered by a canvas pouch. Mine was black. The teevee was up on a dresser, and I leaned back and watched the video and cried.
My father would have called me a faggot, and beat me.
Some fathers do such things.
Nothing written about Tom Petty after his death did not contain the word “American” forty or fifty times.
That which we believe to be permanent so often proves not to be at the most inopportune moments.
One day, the highways will die. Our mighty Interstate will slip under the ivy and fescue and be penetrated by grass and dandelions, and then you’ll not be able to tell rock from tarmac, and after that it won’t be there at all. Fields of summer wheat, unharvested, limping and waving where I-40 used to zip. No more traffic on the 101, just sage and thistle and brushberry. Brambles where there used to be truck stops.
And if you put your ear to the ground, you’ll still be able to hear Refugee.